Is Australia taking over Singapore?
It’s the second year of St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival in Singapore, and making my way through a full crowd of burning scalps lolling in the heat and humidity during the Yuck set had me thinking that many of us had traveled to Fort Canning Park for a movement a little larger than just a festival.
With Singapore’s proximity to Manila—and with the reality of us never catching the Australian wedding bouquet—St. Jerome’s Singapore leg is a welcome addition to this region. Beyond Fosters, beyond crocodiles, I examined how far the country-continent has thrown its fishing line—exporting the service of its culture, or rather, its curatorial handle over global culture.
If the common perception of the vast “Strayan” outback is incongruous enough with the Sydney Opera House—what more a gang of culture enthusiasts making up the southern hemisphere’s answer to Berlin?
Melbourne is Australia’s cultural capital—and in artspeak, equivalent to an entire country’s “cultural capital.” Online culture publications tailored for the alternative audience, like threethousand (Melbourne’s postcode namesake) has stretched out into the rest of its sibling-states where it splits into localized silos like McDonald’s offering Chicken McDo to the Philippine market (see fourthousand, fivethousand, etc). There is an impulse to compile Australia’s emerging alternative culture for a reason—and when bound together in an issue, a ‘style’ emerges.
St. Jerome’s used to just be a tiny Melbourne bar inside a small laneway off a high-traffic junction landmarked by McDonald’s, a half-hidden dive loved by the people who knew it. It wasn’t the popular idea of the “outback,” but the rising number of these “under your nose” locations have required alt-publications to scout and keep up with them.
St. Jerome’s owner, Jerome Borazio, started the festival when he promised the Avalanches that he could close down the lane for a party. It wasn’t a crazy idea—after all, running arts-inclined bars and cafes where young aesthetes stop to air out their thrift shirts over draught beer was an indie vice grip that lent Borazio power. Generous arts grants and public works will tell you that in Melbourne, art is power. While the Avalanches are unlikely to ever cut off our Air Supply (yes, the Philippine karaoke standard also hail from Melbourne), this knob in the timeline marked the promising beginning for a highly marketable festival in Australasia. While the festival is no longer in a laneway, and St. Jerome’s said good-bye three years ago, it is a shining example of Australia’s—or more aptly, Melbourne’s cultural transfer.
Its presence in Singapore is just a part of a larger and growing scheme, as Singapore’s rising new scene is noticeably Australian-influenced. Of course, Singapore still sees the fruit of many an American handshake—with Mario Batali’s multimillion Marina Bay Sands pizzeria fit-out “Mozza” constantly booked out, and being the home of the consolidated MTV Asia when MTV Indonesia and MTV Philippines dissolved. While it’s hard to fully see the effects of a country like Australia, whose cultural exports are almost completely hidden by the obnoxious monopoly of Steve Irwin’s Australian pageantry, it’s definitely there.
Singapore, being its receptive neighbor of former international students, expats, unaccustomed Western newcomers, and as an oasis of Asia-Pacific business start-ups, makes it an ideal stopover for entrepreneurial Australians. It appears, also, that as colonial sisters, both are relatively new nations that have can’t lean much on a heritage backrest (I say this popular yet problematic notion reluctantly, as aboriginal history is overlooked Australian history).
Take for example, Singapore’s Dempsey Hill, a former British hood, riddled with expat-targeted restaurants. You would have found Ernest Hemingway there if he were alive—now, this is where you’ll find the Australian-based Tippling Club, a combined effort between Matthew Bax of Melbourne’s Der Raum (hailed to be a leading mixologist) and Ryan Clift, who for years worked as head chef in Shannon Bennett’s Vue de Monde. As their inventive cuisine is tamed only so it could be eaten, this culinary high-art establishment is not about crocodile burgers and kangaroo game, but a means to emphasize an “Australian-ness” based on modern global trends, like a classy mixtape exportable for its impressive taste standards. It’s probably not the kind of libation for the Laneway market, but I haven’t even gotten started on how much of Australia is stocked at the Singaporean supermarket.
But what really flows through the main artery of the Australia’s “working visa” is, strangely enough, coffee. While its climate and flat expanse is impossible for coffee beans, its art-science barista culture makes the freight costs worth it. Cities around the world are beginning to recognize this, and this is why many third-wave cafes in its mother London are marked by Australian tamping.
The wave of Italian immigrants that brought in espresso machines in the fifties formed the coffee worship that caused Starbucks to enter only to quickly shrink the number of its Australian branches. Starbucks rattled the holy crema with their overpriced cookie cutting, and professional baristas just scoffed at them. I used to live close to one of Melbourne’s best cafes, and it was like eating cereal with mascarpone every morning. It was excessive, it was Melbourne, it was “just coffee.” When I left for Manila, my mornings took a vacation leave—no longer were there baristas making my coffee like they were panning for gold. Before my withdrawal impaired me, I was surprised to discover Singapore’s specialty coffee roll call—these include Papa Palheta, The Plain, and Forty Hands. These cafes have an airtight Melbourne seal—from barista training to what a specialty café generally “looks like.” If you tell any of these cafes that you want a “long black” or a “flat white” they won’t even blink. This is not your average cup of Kopi-O.
But while we now get the spoils of Laneway and long blacks (or indirectly, through Singapore), removed from its natural context, they are mere products whose background is in turn a hologram. When Laneway was removed from a lane, it became a festival still called Laneway. When Laneway was brought to Singapore, it became a travelling circus of musicians curated by Australian organizers. “We [Jerome Borazio and myself] didn’t really ever plan to build it into a multinational event,” Laneway cofounder and promotor Fred Rogers told CNN. “Singapore’s an amazing country, it’s a gateway. It’s easy for artists to get to, it’s a Western country in the middle of Southeast Asia.”
Whether or not this hinders local cultures to emerge without censoring themselves under this new taste standard only to be beaten by the money injected into these first-world projects, let’s wait and see. The night is young for Singapore, and the still half-baked moonlight is close enough for us to experience—though perhaps only as a product. But because Australia “just did their thing” and recently found itself able to pull up chairs for a global audience, it is still over this trust fall that I gladly get suckered in by its cultural backpacking. Or it could very well be just the coffee talking.
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